Why Hasn’t Console Gaming Gone Digital-Only?

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Why Hasn't Console Gaming Gone Digital-Only?

Editor’s note: Some of the language in the previous version of this article, including the headline, may have implied that digital games are selling poorly compared to their physical counterparts. The article has been updated to instead focus on the obstacles facing the console sector going all (or almost all) digital. JM

Thanks to the connectivity afforded to console hardware, purchasing and playing video games has never been a more streamlined and easy process. Digital gaming has made available every single new title at the click of a button. It’s generally a better experience, too; there’s no laborious changing of CDs, and no tedious waiting in line for new releases. Digital games tend to load faster also, and the convenience of storing our games on centralized hubs such as PlayStation Network and Xbox Live can’t be overstated.

Console owners are being offered the gaming equivalent of the iPod; an all-in-one device. But despite getting their start early last generation, digital sales have yet to become the vast majority for purchasers of console games. Indeed, rather than embracing a switch to a digital-only landscape with open arms – as was the case with the music industry – the video gaming digital revolution seems to be taking a little more time to catch on.

So, what gives? Why are so many of us determined to clog our shelves with plastic cases and hoard our precious games in the physical form, especially when the alternative seems to be the logical evolution of our beloved media? The answer isn’t necessarily one single issue, and resistance to an all-digital future seems to stem from several key points. Among others, arguments against are: the current infrastructure of connectivity outside of major cities, the higher price point of digital games, and the preservation of the medium in the future through physical ownership.

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On the surface of it, these issues do seem to make sense; internet speeds aren’t reliable, digital games often seem to be more expensive on PSN and Xbox Live, and without owning a game tangibly, one has to wonder whether you actually own it or whether you’re simply renting its license. Yet, when we explore the issues a little further and contemplate the future of all mediums – using case studies such as music or PC gaming’s transition to a largely digital space – most of the arguments quickly begin to lose their weight.

Certainly, price is the most obvious objection. As has always been the case in every aspect of the video gaming market, North America benefits from significantly cheaper hardware and software, and that’s a theme that extends to the price of digitally bought games and the frequency of sales on digital networks such as PSN and Xbox Live. Games in Europe often cost as much as 50 percent more than their physically released Amazon counterparts. It’s worse in Australia, too, where the prices are jacked up even higher and the availability of games are often restricted or delayed. Yet, even in the USA, digital games sometimes remain at full price long after games at retail have dropped far lower. Whichever way you look at it, buying games at retail makes our hobby less expensive.

Unfortunately, it’s all one big cycle, and the price point of digital games is intrinsically linked to that of games at retail. The very existence of retail titles forces up the price of digital ones. It is simply both markets being forced to compete with one another. At this moment in time, Sony and Microsoft just aren’t in a position to undercut physical games by offering lower prices on their online networks.

Retail stores such as GameStop are hardly going to bother wasting their shelf space by stocking games if nobody buys them, and that’s exactly what would happen if these networks were offering new games at $40. In turn, that might also cause problems for Sony and Microsoft to sell their hardware and peripherals as well. Currently, the big players have nothing to gain by upsetting their relationships with large retail outlets, but you better believe they would rather have direct control over all sales via the PSN/Xbox Live stores rather than have to rely on retail stores. That can only happen, however, when digital sales begin to exceed physical sales significantly.